Tarrant County DA says he would have won re-election, but chose to retire instead

Posted Tuesday, Oct. 01, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon, whom political insiders have considered vulnerable since a sexual harassment settlement went public last year, will retire at the end of his term rather than seek re-election next year.

Shannon, 72, informed his staff by email early Tuesday that he will be stepping down at the beginning of 2015 after practicing law for more than 51 years, including more than 20 years in the prosecutors’ office during two different terms of service.

“My health is good and my energy has not waned,” Shannon wrote. “I have accomplished all of the goals both in private practice and in public service to which I aspired when I began my legal career. … It is now time for me to enjoy pathways which have long been postponed.”

Gov. Rick Perry appointed Shannon in 2009 to serve out the term of the late District Attorney Tim Curry. Shannon, a Republican, was elected to a full four-year term in 2010.

But the veteran prosecutor’s political future was considered tenuous after the county last year paid a $375,000 no-fault settlement in a lawsuit brought by a former assistant district attorney. Shannon has denied the former employee’s accusations, but the settlement angered many in his party.

Earlier this year, Tarrant County Tax Assessor Ron Wright, a fellow Republican, called on Shannon to resign, saying that the case “left an unrelenting cloud hanging over the DA’s office.”

In an interview with the Star-Telegram, Shannon said the decision to retire was not easy. He also said that his internal polling indicated he would have won re-election, although probably with a runoff in the Republican Party primary next year.

“It wasn’t easy. I’ve been cogitating about it for several months,” Shannon said.

If Shannon had run, he would have faced stiff opposition in the GOP primary. While filing for the March 2014 primary doesn’t begin until next month, four candidates have already announced that they’ll run, including former state District Judge Sharen Wilson, Assistant District Attorney Bob Gill, and veteran attorneys George Mackey and Wes Ball.

The Tarrant County Democratic Party, so far, has not fielded a candidate.

Wilson, who gave up her post as a felony district judge to run for district attorney, said Shannon’s decision to retire did not come as a shock.

“Nobody thought he was going to run again. He just made it official,” Wilson said.

Wilson, who has called the district attorney’s office “scandal plagued,” said it would have been more appropriate for Shannon to resign following the sexual harassment claim.

Gill, who stepped down as a felony court judge to rejoin the district attorneys office in 2008 when Curry was still alive, has previously defended the agency but said that he always planned to seek the top prosecutor’s job. He said Shannon’s decision will not change how he will run his campaign.

“We have a clear path going forward. We know what the landscape is,” Gill said.

Tim Evans, a well-known criminal defense attorney in Fort Worth said he would have backed Gill’s bid for the post no matter what Shannon did.

“I wish Joe the very best, and hope that his successor moves the DA’s office back to the days when Tim Curry’s office was recognized as the best in the state,” Evans said.

Celebrated cases

A Fort Worth native, Shannon attended the University of Texas for his bachelor’s degree and later the law school. He graduated from law school and received his law license in 1963.

The son of a lawyer, Shannon said he practically grew up in a courtroom.

“I used to go to court with my mother at night. They would have night sessions and could draw a crowd with a good trial. They’d come to watch the show,” Shannon told the Star-Telegram the year he was given the Blackstone Award in 2011. The local bar association award is given to lawyers 65 years or older who have shown “consistent ability, integrity and courage as a lawyer.”

Initially in private practice, Shannon’s other passion was politics. He served in the Texas House of Representatives from 1964 to 1971 as a Democrat.

He first joined the district attorney’s office in 1972 and returned to private practice in 1978. He rejoined the district attorney’s office in 1999 as the chief of the economic crimes unit.

During his legal career, Shannon told his employees in his email that he has been involved in several “celebrated” cases.

One of those was the prosecution of oilman Cullen Davis, a millionaire who was accused of being the infamous “man in black” who entered his southwest Fort Worth mansion in 1976 and killed his stepdaughter, his wife’s lover and wounded his estranged wife and a family friend. Davis was never convicted in the case.

As district attorney, Shannon oversees an office with 164 attorneys. The total staff, including support personnel, is about 325. The office handles about 45,000 criminal cases a year and has a budget of about $36 million.

The office, according to Shannon’s email, has a felony conviction rate of 90 percent.

Sticking around

While Shannon ran unopposed in 2010, his tenure as district attorney has been controversial.

Besides the sexual harassment case — officials opted to settle to protect the county from the high cost of a lawsuit — the district attorney’s office has also been criticized recently for how it has handled sexual assault cases.

A series of stories in 2012 by the Star-Telegram found that Tarrant County grand juries have rejected more than half the rape cases presented to them by prosecutors, and that sex crime detectives said they were almost never called to testify about their cases. Shannon, in a written rebuttal, said his office takes each case seriously and defended how his office handles those cases.

“The kind of work I’m in, you can’t make everyone happy,” he said.

Shannon said in his email to his employees that he hopes his successor will “continue the tradition of honesty and integrity which has been the watchword of this office for over 40 years.”

Max B. Baker, 817-390-7714 Twitter: @MaxBBaker

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